Survey Says: More College Freshman Think They’re “All That!”

According to research, the current generation of students think very highly of themselves, contrary to objective evidence. In today’s tight job market, their success is not guaranteed.

According to a recent survey, more college freshmen in America today hold substantially higher opinions of themselves than those who answered the survey in the 60s, 70s and 80s. But the students’ levels of self-appraisal don’t necessarily correspond with their levels of achievement or competence. And what they base their positive opinions about themselves on differs dramatically, not only from the standards by which prior generations have judged themselves, but also from the criteria that most folks would agree should make a person rightfully proud. It seems that, for a variety of socio-cultural reasons, many young persons think they’re “all that,” even in the absence of objective evidence to back up their notions.

The findings referenced above come from a study published in the March 2012 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The principal findings of the study lend support to the notion that the modern era is definitely home to the “Me Generation” — a generation the survey suggests is more concerned with money, image, and fame, and less interested than one might reasonably expect in community service, political participation, or environmental issues, especially when compared to baby boomers and Generation Xers. The lead author of the study, Jean Twenge, and her colleagues analyzed data from two separate survey sources, one of which has accumulated yearly information since 1966, and the other since 1975. The researchers found that, while earlier generations were relatively hesitant to judge themselves “superior” to their peers without some convincing evidence to back up the claim, members of the Me Generation are by no means shy on confidence, even when there isn’t much objective evidence based on their levels of achievement to back up their high opinions of their worth. More students than ever rate themselves as “exceptional” in comparison to their peers, and rate themselves as “above average” on various personal attributes and competencies, even when standardized test scores and other objective measures of competence don’t support that contention. And, as other studies have demonstrated, such inaccurate assessment of capabilities often leads to what some researchers term “ambition inflation,” which occurs when a student sees him or herself as more prepared or qualified to step into a social or career role than they actually are. Taken together, the research suggests that today’s young persons are ambitious and confident, to be sure, but they’re having a difficult time fashioning a truly accurate and balanced sense of self.

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While many of the survey results mentioned above are not surprising, they are, nonetheless, disconcerting. I’ve had some relatively recent experience teaching college freshmen in several different settings. I found most of the students to be bright, inquisitive, amiable, eager to learn, and a genuine pleasure to work with. But, even given my longstanding familiarity with the culture of entitlement and the kind of character dysfunction it can encourage, I was still more than a little shocked to experience firsthand the degree of unrealistic expectation and lack of a sense of obligation that a significant minority of the students displayed. Some were convinced they were going to set the world on fire writing great screenplays, even though they could not compose a single coherent paragraph, and saw absolutely no need to learn how. Others responded with outrage that I had not skewed the grading “curve” far enough to ensure them a passing grade on an exam on which they had answered only 20 percent of the questions correctly, and admittedly, by pure chance. Some even expected that they would have a passing grade simply handed to them, despite rarely attending classes, not completing assignments, failing to show up for team projects, and not studying for their tests and quizzes. And it did little good to caution some of these students about the negative consequences likely to occur if they did not improve their attitudes, because they were ardently convinced not only that they would still triumph in the end, but also that they already were “winners” — despite what their grades and the other messes in their lives suggested.

I’ve posted some prior articles on the importance of getting the balance right when it comes to self-appraisal (see, for example, “Getting It Right About Self-Esteem”). Also, in my books In Sheep’s Clothing [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK](?) and Character Disturbance [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK](?), I’ve addressed the factors that influence this crucial dimension of personality and character development. So, while accepting that surveys and the various possible interpretations of their results are open to debate, it’s nonetheless worrisome that there’s any evidence at all out there suggesting that more students than ever appear to hold themselves in unwarranted high esteem, and are more concerned with personal gain and glory than making a positive contribution to society. And unfortunately, there’s other research evidence to support the notion that today’s students are far more narcissistic than their counterparts from prior generations. Perhaps there’s a bit of good news in the finding that the rate at which student self-appraisals have inflated appears to have decreased somewhat in recent years, and might be leveling off. That might be because, over time, reality has been sinking in, or possibly it’s because, as inflated as their opinions of themselves have been, there wasn’t much room for student egos to expand.

The two main investing entities that have gathered data on college students will be conducting their surveys once again this year. And because the job market is considerably tighter than it’s been in many years, most college students will find it harder than ever to land the job of their dreams without some really impressive credentials. Perhaps that reality will trickle down to freshmen and translate into different perceptions on their part, not only about what is expected of them, but also what they might well expect of themselves in order to be successful. Time (and, of course, a few more survey reports) will tell.

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